A Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Child-Reported Maternal Warmth on Cortisol Stress Response 15 Years After Parental Divorce

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The experience of parental divorce during childhood is associated with an increased risk of behavioral and physical health problems. Alterations in adrenocortical activity may be a mechanism in this relation. Parent-child relationships have been linked to cortisol regulation in children exposed to adversity, but prospective research is lacking. We examined maternal warmth in adolescence as a predictor of young adults' cortisol stress response 15 years after parental divorce.


Participants included 240 youth from recently divorced families. Mother and child reports of maternal warmth were assessed at 6 time points across childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Offspring salivary cortisol was measured in young adulthood before and after a social stress task. Structural equation modeling was used to predict cortisol response from maternal warmth across early and late adolescence.


Higher child-reported maternal warmth in early adolescence predicted higher child-reported maternal warmth in late adolescence (standardized regression = 0.45, standard error = 0.065, p < .01), which predicted lower cortisol response to a challenging interpersonal task in young adulthood (standardized regression = −0.20, standard error = 0.094, p = .031). Neither mother-reported warmth in early adolescence nor late adolescence was significantly related to offspring cortisol response in young adulthood.


Results suggest that for children from divorced families, a warm mother-child relationship after divorce and across development, as perceived by the child, may promote efficient biological regulation later in life.


Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT01407120.

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